Akshay Kumar’s Gold, And How The Bengali Talks In Hindi Film

From Kahaani to Piku to Gold, the delights and frustrations of the 'Bengali-Hindi' spoken on screen
Akshay Kumar’s Gold, And How The Bengali Talks In Hindi Film

There is a scene in Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani where the police officer, played by Kharaj Mukherjee, asks the Vidya Balan character, who has just arrived in the city, her name.

"Vidya Bagchi," she says.

"Bidda Bagchi," he dutifully notes it down.

She corrects him: Vidya. 'V'. Not a 'B'.

He smiles, says it's the same thing. "Madam ei Kolkata mein, Bidda Vidya, sab ek. Same feeling."

More filling than feeling, Kalkata than Kolkata, the distance between the 's' and 'a' in 'same' stretched beyond normal.

There are more such examples in Kahaani 1 and 2  (a world populated with Bengali characters trying to communicate with Balan's protagonist, an outsider, in whichever way they can) where 'Bengali-Hindi,' with its natural rhythms and idiosyncrasies, creates its own kind of poetry. Gyaara baje naagad, for instance, naagad being a colloquial way of saying 'around' a given time. Or, Chyachayega – a lovechild of  the Bengali (chyachano) and Hindi (chillayega) of 'shouting.'

Perhaps these are micro-delights that only a Kolkata-bred ear will catch, as in Anurag Basu's very Bengali world in the musical Jagga Jasoos, which too indulges in some playful use of Bengali-Hindi. But I do remember enjoying the slight Malayali cadence in Padmapriya's Hindi in Chef (2017), or the whiff of South Indian accent you find in Prakash Belawadi's turn in Madras Cafe (2013). They bring a lot of flavour. All of which says something about regional character actors speaking Hindi with the accent of their mother tongue.

I recall Kahaani, which released 6 years ago, on the week Reema Kagti's Gold, in which Akshay Kumar speaks in Bengali-accented Hindi, has released because while the former is an example of how a real Bengali speaks Hindi, the latter is an example of Bollywood's idea of how a Bengali speaks Hindi – which invariably means productions helmed by directors and actors who aren't familiar with the language. I'm all for a good caricature, which has its own pleasures, and Kumar's character is a bit of a buffoon. But he is no Peter Sellers, and Gold is no The Party, the 1968 American farce. It's a straight-jacketed patriotic-minded sports-drama that hopes to remind us of national integration on Independence Day and entertain us along the way. Kumar's isn't a bad performance – although it's a broad one – and I chuckled in a couple of scenes: such as the one where he goes "Shala, pant gira diya" when he sees Amit Sadh's Centre-forward of royal pedigree taking his clothes off to give them away to a beggar on the street. But it was always in a I-am-watching-Akshay-Kumar-playing-a-Bengali-in-a-Hindi-film sort of a way, not a person speaking.

Casting director Trishaan Sarkar who was appointed to train Kumar on the accent says that Kagti wanted the actor to speak Hindi the way a real Bengali would, with all the mistakes: the gender mess-ups, the complete omission of the rh, turning the s into sh, the tendency to round it all up. It's a commendable idea to try to get the accent right, but the result we see in Gold is inaccurate and inconsistent. His khela, which finds a middle spot between the Hindi khel and the Bengali khyala, sounds more like a banana. Kemon achho (How are you?) sounds closer to its Gujarati counterpart. Following the formula of equal bits Hindi, equal bits Bengali, dream become shopna, but only in the first half, it becomes sapna post-interval.

Even if I gave Kumar, an actor with Punjabi roots, the benefit of doubt, how Mouni Roy, a Bengali, could commit the same mistake and let it happen, is perplexing.

Would it have worked differently under the watchful eyes of, say, a Shoojit Sircar, who knows the language, and who guided Amitabh Bachchan in a similarly tricky terrain in Piku? It wasn't perfect, but Bachchan pulled off the role of a cantankerous old Bengali man obsessed with his bowel movements, the rough edges of his accent smoothened by the premise that he is a probashi, who has lived in Delhi away from Kolkata for long. "We were very careful about not overdoing it, and I wouldn't say we got it 100 percent," says Sircar, "There were portions I could have corrected but I let them be."

It helped that Bachchan has old connections with the language – he acted in Bengali in Shakti Samanta's Anushandhan (1981) (Barsaat ki ek Raat in Hindi). His wife, actor Jaya Bachchan, would help him in his preparation for the role. "Some of his great friends were Utpal Dutt (one of the progenitors of the Bengali-accented Hindi in Hindi film), Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Robi Ghosh. He picked up their Bengali-Hindi accent, and he has lived 7 years in Kolkata. He would bring these up in the script meetings, say that he wants to say things like Ghorar dim (literal meaning 'horse egg,' a popular nonsense phrase), or "Tor ponde baansh dhukiye debo" (I'll stick a bamboo up your ass)," says Sircar.

How important is accent? Can it make or break a performance or a film? Director Dibakar Banerjee says that the audience, beyond a point, doesn't care about authenticity of the characters's language, unless one belongs to that language group the accent of which is being portrayed.

How important is accent? Can it make or break a performance or a film? Director Dibakar Banerjee says that the audience, beyond a point, doesn't care about authenticity of the characters's language, unless one belongs to that language group the accent of which is being portrayed.

It didn't matter in Banerjee's Detective Byomkesh Bakshy (2015) where Sushant Singh Rajput and Anand Tiwari, playing the celebrated Bengali sleuth and his sidekick respectively, spoke in regular Hindi, as they would in any other Hindi film. So did Neeraj Kabi who played Byomkesh's arch-rival Dr Guha. The Hindi they speak steers clear of even the usual Bengali stereotypical markers – a ki holo here, a shorbonash there – that are slipped in regular intervals in such a set-up. The only hint of Bengali accent we get is in the Hindi the Bengali character actors speak in the film – the actor playing Putiram, the servant of the mess bari, or Atanu da, the Head Chemist. I like it – but Banerjee says that he would have ideally liked to get rid of that hint of Bengali in these actors's (who he says he cast for the physicality) Hindi accent  as well. Banerjee's logic is clear. This is a Hindi film. "Detective Byomkesh Bakshy is a world where everybody is a Bengali but we can hear them in Hindi," he says. He calls it the "magic filter of storytelling." One can do that when the story is set in "a unitary homogenous world." (Some of the other examples are Parineeta, Gunday, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas).

"It's when you are trying to show the differences in cultural backgrounds that you want to put on an accent. In my next film Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, Arjun's (Kapoor) character is a cop from Delhi who has a Haryanvi accent. Only time will tell how that works," he adds.

But one thing is for certain, if one does an accent, it'll be good to master it. But do such Hindi film actors as Kumar have the time, and intent, to prepare enough? Do the constraints of mainstream film productions allow them to? Examples in the recent past, such as Kangana Ranaut in Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) and Aamir Khan in Dangal (2016), both of who did a pretty convincing job in getting the Haryanvi accent, shows that it can be done. Although the Bengali-Hindi is its own beast that can make even the most methodical of actors sound fake – just refer to Naseeruddin Shah as the naturopathic doctor Modhushudon Tarafdar in Vishal Bhardwaj's 7 Khoon Maaf (2011).

Considering these factors, Sujoy Ghosh prefers to retain the natural accents of actors, as he did in Kahaani. He mentions Valkyrie (2008), the Hollywood thriller set in Nazi-Germany, in which everyone – Tom Cruise in American, Bill Nighy in British, and Kenneth Branagh in Irish – spoke in their respective accents even though they all play Germans.

"It was very jarring in the beginning, it takes a while to get into the film… but then I wondered, if it's working, why not." He adds, "Audience is clever nowadays, if you are pretending they can make out you are pretending. So speak how you speak Hindi… If you do as you know, if nothing, it comes out natural. You don't see any extra effort being put there, no pretence."

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